Thursday, December 2, 2010

When Is It OK To Railroad?

EDIT: Apologies, this should have posted earlier in the day! Looks like the blogging software decided to take a break on me.

Our gaming group apparently went wayyyyy off course last session. My bard is probably at least partially to blame, but the Game Master felt like any cause for adventuring together, and any sort of focus, had been lost. He warned us we could either have some of the group reroll characters to fit in with things, or he could get us back together, but he’d have to railroad it. We voted for the latter.

He did it in the form of more campaign exposition through email; our characters were kidnapped, accused of a crime (quite mysteriously), and sent to a penal colony far in the southern wastes. I thought the email was a good choice. It gives us time to let it sink in and consider our new surroundings, and ensures that what happens at our table doesn't devolve into the GM telling a story for 2 hours setting things up.

We’ve all been in campaigns were a heavy-handed plot was shoved down our throats, without warning, grace, or benefit. And I’m as anti-railroad as anyone. But I do think that for the GM that doesn’t feel like there are any other options, using the method our GM used isn’t bad. Here’s what I think he did right:

-He warned us ahead of time, and clearly defined the intended consequence of the action.

-He framed it as further plot exposition, setting us up for additional adventures, instead of taking up time at the table where our characters had no input in what was actively happening to us.

-He did it in a finite, defined manner, with a beginning and an end, after which, we had free will of action in a new scenario of the campaign.

For me, I think in most cases, even if you’re railroading, you can at least give the illusion of choice, and possibly the players will never know. And if you don’t want to be sneaky about it, be upfront—just don’t sit at the table and weave this elaborate tapestry, dictating the One True Way, dismissing all other courses of action, while the players are sitting there bored out of their skulls. There may be some shouting about that, and it’s not something I’m fond of doing, but I’m not going to say I’ve never, ever done it. At times, for the good of the game, all roads have led to Rome, so to speak. It isn’t good policy, but sometimes it needs to be done. I think that especially in less-seasoned groups, you’re going to see this more, and of course GMs all have their own techniques to get issues resolved. Railroading is a dangerous tool to use because we gamers react so negatively to the merest suggestion of it, but used properly, it can get things moving again. Just make sure you don’t stay on the train after you’ve arrived at your destination.


Emmett said...

I find that different people have different definitions of railroading. Some react to pressure to move in a specific direction as railroading, others only consider it railroading if there is only one choice for the players. I personally railroad occasionally to get the group into a story but I try not to have any kind of lasting effect on the players, just move them into position. Some don't like that idea, most players are fine with it.

Zachary Houghton said...

That's true. I think some gamers have a quite strict definition of what constitutes railroading.

Jason said...

Agreed with Emmett and Zachary. It doesn't sound to me like what he did was railroading as much as it was simply setting up an adventure hook. Getting arrested and accused of a crime you didn't commit isn't railroading; it's a campaign element that forces you to react to the situation. That's not railroading. Railroading is where there's one path--on the tracks--and you have no choice but to continue straight down that path without deviation. This, by contrast, is the beginning of an adventure--you've been arrested and sentenced. What you do once you're in the penal colony is up to you.

If he'd given you heavy-handed clues about what you are supposed to do from the penal colony, smacking you over the head with who framed you and steering you back on the path to vengeance every time you made a different decision, THAT is railroading. Having a story or plot in mind is not railroading unless the players have no meaningful choices along the way.

Emmett said...

Responding to Jason, Yeah it's actually really hard to simply state what "Railroading" really is. I think you did a fine job but trying to come up with a definition like you would see in a dictionary that players aren't going to misconstrue is hard! We tried years ago at The Forge but there really wasn't agreement on it. I think it was exacerbated by the fact that there are/were a lot of game writers that were very interested in no GM games or very weak GM interaction in games.

A.L. said...

To me Railroading is simple. "Anytime there are no relevant choices but going forward along a predetermined path" the GM is railroading. Now, that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

In the beginning of an adventure, the GM has a bit more leeway to railroad IMO, as they have to get everything set up to go. Pieces have to be put in place.

In the situation you described, the GM did no wrong. He gave a choice, "We can continue like this, where some of you may need to reroll so you can have fun. Or I can put us back on track with some railroading, the choice is yours". The players then opted to be put back on track, and the GM did that.

There are other situations where it can happen and be fine as well. Though, those are very contextual. The problem is that 'in general' railroading is bad because it takes away the choice, and thus a lot of the fun - and control - from the players. Some groups do like it.

steelcaress said...

The thing I don't like about the term "railroading" is that it's ambiguous.

I had a group that wanted me to drop hints like "there's nothing more to do here" so they could move on and we could get things under way. They wanted some guidance to get back into the thick of things.

I had other pick-up games where the players seemed to want to run roughshod all over the place and damn the adventure. Never mind the fact that the adventure was the only thing I had planned and that aimless wandering bores me to tears. Any prodding to stick to the scenario probably would have ended up with bored players and a game that fell apart.

Usually I try to detect the flow of the scenario and just run with it when I'm playing. It makes the GM's job easier. My personal philosophy is this: if you get together and start a game of poker and someone pulls out Clue and starts playing in the middle, some people are likely to be annoyed. IMHO if players want more fun out of the evening they should just stick to what's already planned, as long as their actions aren't predetermined by the GM. The GM sets the scene, the players react to it.

Adventure hooks are just fine, and prods, hints, and guidance are a matter of taste for each group.

Anonymous said...

I see a few things that might fall under railroading (depending on your definition)

1. Traditional Railroading
When a DM does not want a group of players to go to a given place, he can put barriers in between. This is to enforce action in a certain direction.
For example: the DM expected the players to go to Dorkeep, a castle infected with undead. The players decide that they don't want to go to Dorkeep but the DM doesn't like it so he sends in a wizard that teleports the party to Dorkeep (no save).
The problem with this is that your players can easily misunderstand this tactic as a new challenge. It is also less fun to be railroaded all the time. Therefore traditional railroading is a bad thing.

2. Giving undefeatable conflicts
In some cases, the DM gives a challenge that is not meant to be fought. For example: the players have stolen an item and the DM sends 100 guards against them (when they can only handle 10).
I do not think this is railroading, but it has some similar problems.

3. OC Railroading
Another possibility is to railroad out of character. You simply tell your players, not your characters, that you don't want them doing that and the reasons. This is a good tactic if you have the idea your players are missing something.
For example: "You want to attack the Orcus? That is a level 33 solo monster and you are all level 12. I think that will result in a Total Party Kill"
Maybe it is a little bit of a dirty trick, but at least they cant blame you if the TPK actually happens.

4. Bread-crumbling
This tactic is giving more plot hooks if they do not catch the first one. This is a perfectly valid tactic, if you can do it realistic. You can:
- Prepare multiple plot hooks.
- Save the adventure for later use, and add a new plot hook might to it.

Anonymous said...

Ive had GM's who rail road by simply closing the books when we don't buy into plot hooks or follow the breadcrumbs that are left... nothing better then the GM ending a campaign since you didn't catch a hint, or found it hard for a non-alinged party to really care about a holy crusade... or a Giant invasion.
alot of older RPG adventures were pure Railroads...